Don’t visit West Africa for “Big Game” or majestic ruins – instead, focus on the amazing variety of people you’ll meet there, and take time to learn their history, their customs, and share your own.
From Nigeria to Senegal, West Africa is home to an estimated 362 million people. It’s an area of many cultures, but they don’t clash. In fact, there are many similarities in dress, food, and music and songs, and it’s thanks to the long history of cultural exchange in this region.
Even the homes are similar – if not in style, then in function. The traditional West African home is built within a compound, a cluster of buildings that serves to keep families connected. Sometimes these buildings are even connected, joined around an open area.
West Africans enjoy free-flowing and embroidered clothing, with elaborate stitching on their shirts, tunics, and jackets. The formal attire includes a knee-to-ankle Boubou robe, sometimes called a kaftan. These loose-fitted robes have their origins in the royal families of the 12th century, along with another popular item – a large square of cloth draped around the shoulder called the Kente cloth, made by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, that is the most well-known and a source of ethnic pride.
Kente is a colorful type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips. The Kente colors and the patterns are rich in symbolism. Most Kente cloths contain yellow (gold), which signifies royalty, wealth, fertility, and beauty. Black is also a dominant color and means maturation and intense spiritual energy. Blue is another often-used color and it represents peacefulness, harmony, and love.
The cuisine of West Africa, with its plentiful fish, vegetables, fruits, and rice, should be familiar to the rest of the world. Many of these recipes are enjoyed in the Caribbean, as well as the southern region of the United States, especially in Louisiana, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. Think Jambalaya and Gumbo! Other starchy foods that are cooked in West Africa include yams, plantains, cassava, and sweet potatoes.
Football (or soccer) is hugely popular in West Africa, with national teams meeting at the Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. But it is the board game of Oware, which originated with the Akan people of Ghana, which is the most popular recreation in West Africa.
Modern musical genres in West Africa include Mbalax, Highlife, Fuji, and Afrobeat, but in many regions, traditional folk music is still preserved. Two important traditions are Praise-singing and Griot, both of which are musical, and used to convey and preserve stories and legends. These minstrel traditions use a string and percussion instruments, such as the talking drum, as accompaniment. Griots are historians, and their job is to memorize the oral traditions and use music to share their stories. Praise-singers are often responsible for memorizing the lineages of royal people and historic events, and they pride themselves on their creativity and ability to improvise. Both of these artists depend upon the generosity of patrons, and the best are lavished with money and clothing and other luxuries.
The film industry in West Africa is growing, and Nigeria has become the home of “Nollywood,” a thriving business that produces 1,500 films per year! Nollywood films are available globally on Netflix and Youtube. Some people credit the strong tradition of theater and storytelling in Nigeria with its immense growth.
Another contemporary trend in West Africa is the spread of peace, thanks to the brave women instrumental in rebuilding Africa, starting formally with the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1325 in 2000. The peace movement has moved into West Africa and in 2006, the Women Peace and Security Network was established in Ghana. This organization, which advocates nonviolent resistance, is also found in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
If you would like to visit West Africa, consider a volunteer travel program that places you in a safe country on a responsible, meaningful project. There are many to choose from, and each of the ones highlighted below is vetted for responsibility and sustainability!
Featured Volunteer Programs in West Africa
Love Volunteers offers more than 120 affordable programs, with fees starting at just $229. Founded in 2009, Love Volunteers has placed more than 20,000 volunteers and interns on meaningful projects in 34 countries worldwide. With a mission to empower communities, Love Volunteers staff reviews each program for safety, social responsibility, and impact.
With 54 projects in Africa, Love Volunteers has a massive influence in nearly a dozen countries, including Ghana and Senegal in West Africa. A trusted and highly rated organization, Love Volunteers is transparent about its fees and audits each program for safety and social responsibility. Airport pickup is included in most of its program, and volunteers are usually met by a team member as they arrive in-country. Housing and meals depend upon placement but most often are immersive and with traditional and local experiences. Most countries where you’ll volunteer are developing, so basic amenities are available but can be scarce. It’s daunting to travel abroad, especially solo as many volunteers do, but Love Volunteers makes your safety and security a priority and provides you with all the information you need to enjoy your trip abroad.
Childcare & Development in Ghana
When you volunteer with childcare, helping the vulnerable and impoverished children of Ghana, you will have a challenging yet rewarding experience. You’ll work in a care center, assisting children who are often impacted by the HIV/AIDS virus, and who may even have lost one – or both – parents to the crisis. You’ll provide hands-on care with their daily needs, and spend time playing and interacting with children who need your love and attention. In Ghana, community centers are underfunded and under-resourced, so your help is vital for these children to lead happy and healthy lives. You’re encouraged to play games and teach them new skills and interests. Daily tasks may include feeding the younger children, cooking and cleaning, organizing fun activities and games, helping with homework, teaching basic hygiene, and even lending a hand with basic repair and maintenance of the center.
You can choose to stay in Accra, a coastal city and the capital of Ghana, with its mix of modern buildings and shantytowns, as well as castles and colorful markets. While in the city, visit the National Museum, which focuses on the national heritage of Ghana, and take weekend trips to the beaches along the Atlantic coast. Another option is placement in Kumasi, the “Garden City” and home to the Ashanti. The highlight of this locale is the National Cultural Centre, which houses a museum dedicated to the Ashanti history, a library, a crafts shop, and an exhibition hall. Ashanti is renowned for its craftsmanship that includes goldsmithing, wood carving, cloth printing, and weaving. Stay from one to 12 weeks, with affordable program fees beginning at $229. Click here for more information.
Volunteer with Creative Arts
The creative arts project in Ghana with Love Volunteers allows you to work with disadvantaged children, using art as a platform to alleviate the harsh reality and hardships of everyday life. Your skills and talent can improve children’s creativity, and ultimately, their lives, as they express themselves and tap into their own inventiveness. Research proves that exposure to art can help youth develop positively, and as a result, art has recently been included in the Ghana Education Service, so more children are now able to use creative skills to express themselves. When a child is exposed to art, they are more adept at resolving conflicts. It also helps to deter problems with attendance and disruptive behavior by building self-respect, resilience, empathy, and collaborative skills. However, there is a lack of teachers who can do this.
As a volunteer, you’ll follow a curriculum, though you’re encouraged to teach any creative subject you think will benefit your students. Since resources are limited, you’re also invited to bring new materials and art supplies with you to Ghana. Help to develop the students’ cognitive abilities through creative methods using constructive materials, paints, clay, and drawing. Other tasks include helping to keep the classroom clean, teaching basic English, and reporting on daily activities to local teachers. Stay at least one week on this program with fees starting at $229. Read more here.
With over 25 years of experience in global volunteering and internships, Projects Abroad offers various programs that help you make a difference worldwide. With dedicated in-country staff everywhere they work, you can be assured of your safety.
Each volunteer project meets a real need within the local community, and focuses on long-term, sustainable solutions. Alternatively, internships provide you with the real-world experience and skills that will either help you get into university or assist you in your future career.
Projects Abroad knows that you can only achieve your best when you feel secure, which is why they only send volunteers and interns to countries that are safe and politically stable. It’s often said that Ghana is the best country to visit for first time travelers in West Africa and Projects Abroad has several projects for you to choose from. You’ll receive training and inductions on arrival.
Gain medical experience in Ghana
If you are looking for experience to add to your medical school application, look no further. Projects Abroad has several programs that will give you with observational medical and healthcare experience.
The Medicine & Healthcare internships in Ghana give you the opportunity to learn directly from doctors in hospitals or clinics. You’ll shadow them on their rounds, observing how they diagnose and treat different illnesses or conditions. You’ll see medical cases that you’ve only read about in textbooks, which is a great way to enhance your practical medical knowledge. Projects Abroad runs regular medical outreaches in communities where healthcare services are limited. You’ll join these and help provide basic medical treatment, from cleaning and bandaging wounds, to measuring blood pressure levels. If you want to focus specifically on practical outreach work, sign up for its Public Health internship. You can join a variety of other internship specializations, including Medicine, Nursing, Midwifery, Physical Therapy, Speech Therapy, Pharmacy and Dentistry.
Work with Talibé Children in Senegal
Projects Abroad works with Talibé children in Senegal. Talibés live on the street, don’t attend school, and they’re forced to spend their day begging for food and money. Projects Abroad funds and runs its own care center to support these children with free basic education and healthcare. You’ll lend a hand at this center and provide them with the support they need. You can find out more here.
Volunteer on Building Projects in Ghana
Assist with building volunteer work in Ghana and use your own hands to provide communities with important infrastructure. You’ll work alongside local builders to construct classrooms, toilet blocks, libraries, or homes. This is a great way to get actively involved in the community and learn new practical skills. Because of the building work you do, you’ll be able to physically see the effort you have put in before leaving Ghana. Read more about Projects Abroad’s Building Project.
Since 1989, Frontier has placed volunteers, interns, and travelers on inspirational opportunities and gap year placements in 60 countries worldwide. Frontier partners with NGOs to provide 400+ capacity-building programs that combine community development with conservation. Frontier’s origins are in scientific and conservation research, and it works in ecosystem protection to save endangered wildlife and build livelihoods for under-resourced communities.
Working with Frontier in West Africa is a unique way to get training and education, especially Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification. Frontier offers two levels of TEFL, which means you can get the most out of your volunteer abroad experience. Choose its traditional TEFL Certificate, available on teaching projects that last four weeks or more, or try its new, exclusive TEFL ETEC, which gives you a chance to earn formal, internationally recognized and EDEXCEL accredited qualification. Frontier also is registered to offer Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) and even PADI Dive Training. Check out the different ways you can get qualified with Frontier while traveling and working abroad.
Gambia Teaching Project
Mentor a child on the Gambia teaching project with Frontier in West Africa. A tiny pocket of land enveloped by the country of Senegal, Gambia is one of West Africa’s top destinations with its vibrant culture, quaint fishing villages, and beautiful beaches. The Gambia River flows through the country, saturating it with fresh water that helps its ecosystems and forests flourish. You’ll find this is a rewarding experience when you help a community that lacks basic educational resources, teaching conversational English and helping tutor children in understaffed and overcrowded schools. This opportunity is a professional benefit to you, as you’ll be encouraged to bring ideas and develop your teaching skills and techniques.
If you’re interested in working as a teacher later, you’ll be able to practice in Gambia with developing lesson plans, preparing homework, and marking students’ work. You’ll also be invited to organize extracurricular activities, depending upon your personal skills and interests, whether it’s a school play, a school choir, or a team sporting event. Stay with a host family on this placement, enjoying three home-cooked, fresh meals per day. On weekends, take time to enjoy village entertainment, from African drumming, learning how to tie-dye fabrics, dancing, yoga, birdwatching, and traditional African games. If you wish to travel further abroad, Frontier staff can assist you with planning. Stay for two weeks or longer with fees starting at $845. Click here to register.
Senegal Sports Coaching
Motivate young people and help them to develop talents in athletics when you volunteer to coach sports in Senegal with Frontier. This small country in West Africa is known for its rich artistic heritage, as well as being an exotic melting pot of music, cuisine, and customs. Located in Dakar on the Atlantic Ocean, its beaches are fringed with palm trees and bordered by coral reefs and cays that you can snorkel on weekends. If you have a basic understanding of French, you can spend your days at a football center, mentoring youth in the sport of football (soccer), teaching them ball control and tactical play, team strategy, and selection, as well as improve their physical fitness through training and exercise. You will be in charge of the project and required to organize your own timetable with children throughout the week. Sport is a universal language in Senegal, but volunteers are needed to help children develop and improve their skills. This is a great opportunity for you if you want to test your coaching and teaching abilities, and even earn a TEFL certificate while abroad.
In addition to football, you can teach basketball, roller skating, volleyball, and athletics. Accommodations are at a homestay, and you’ll be served three meals a day. On weekends, you can enjoy the thriving music scene and street markets of Dakar, as well as its beaches, museums, and art galleries. Attend an art workshop and learn how to play the djembe drum, or take a Senegalese cooking class. Dancing, football, and volleyball also are popular weekend activities. Priced from $1,045 for two weeks, this program is available throughout the Christmas period. Read more here.
A Broader View Volunteers Corp
A Broader View is a U.S. nonprofit charity that offers 245 work- and study-abroad placements in 25 countries throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Founded in 2008, ABV focuses on affordable humanitarian programs that connect with locals on a grassroots level. Its mission is to provide developing countries with programs that aid the neediest communities and forge a bond between those volunteering and those they have helped. In the past decade, ABV volunteers have raised and distributed more than $3 million in donations worldwide.
Enjoy a customized volunteer experience with A Broader View, whether you choose to work in marine conservation, teach abroad, support wildlife, participate in a building and construction project, or provide support for children. Its safe and affordable programs in West Africa include childcare and medical support in Ghana. Learn more about its programs that benefit others, and enhance your own professional career.
Medical Volunteer in Ghana
If you have medical training or are currently enrolled as a nursing or pre-med student, join A Broader View in Ghana as a volunteer to support medical and health care. Poverty and the poor health conditions that come with it are a vicious cycle in the developing countries of West Africa, with people suffering from treatable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and HIV/AIDS. There are limited resources, however, and it’s difficult for the staff to provide basic health care to all.
You’ll work alongside other volunteers and medical professionals in the Health Center in Kasoa, in the Buduburam community, and also take part in the public health team on outreach. Travel to district schools and talk to students there about health and safety, and the symptoms, treatment, and prevention of malaria and gastrointestinal diseases. You’ll shadow doctors and nurses while on this project, and your level of participation depends upon your qualifications and the needs of the clinic. Volunteers need to bring their own medical supplies, including gloves, mask, scrubs, and donations you may consider. Stay with a host family who will provide most of your meals, depending upon your work schedule. Airport pickup and drop-off are included, as well as in-country orientation upon arrival. Program fees start at $820 for one week, but you may stay up to eight weeks on this critical project. Learn more and apply today.
Liberian Refugee Camp School
Travel to Ghana in West Africa with A Broader View and volunteer to teach children at a Refugee Camp. Established in 1990, the settlement protects asylum seekers, primarily children, fleeing the conflict in Liberia. Women and children account for more than 65% of the camp’s population, and the school presently serves 60 children, ranging in age from three to 15 years old. Another large portion of the refugees are sick, elderly, or disabled, and unable to support themselves, and live below the poverty line. Your assistance is needed to help alleviate this stress by:
- Promoting education and reducing illiteracy
- Helping to eradicate child labor
- Promoting HIV/AIDS awareness
- Focusing on children’s self-confidence to improve their ability and capacity
- Promoting gender equality
At the school, you’ll teach English classes and focus on basic alphabet memorization and math. You’ll also help with after-school activities, bringing some fun and enjoyment into the lives of these disadvantaged children. Share sports, arts, crafts, and games with the students, and take part in the lunch program that provides a decent meal each day. Host families provide accommodation and most meals. Airport transfer is included, and support is available 24/7. Upon completion, participants receive an ABV volunteer diploma, a letter of verification of service hours, and Presidential Award recognition. Stay from one to eight weeks on this worthy project, with fees starting at $820. Read more here and register.
Naturally Africa Volunteers
Naturally Africa Volunteers offers affordable volunteer project prices without compromising on levels of comfort and prides itself on its transparency. The organization, founded in 2010, works with local management teams to ensure its volunteers are supporting the needs and understanding the culture of the communities in which they work. Volunteering where there is a lack of skill or knowledge means that no jobs are taken from the community, and all projects respond to needs, without creating a dependence upon the provision of aid. The goal is self-sufficiency wherever possible.
Naturally Africa Volunteers operates the Naturally Africa Foundation, which raises funds and provides financial support for community and conservation projects. Its projects in Ghanaallow volunteers in West Africa to address the issues of medical and healthcare, teaching and education, and conservation. Despite the country’s safety and stability, and its wealth of mineral resources, nearly half of its population live below the international $1 per day guideline for extreme poverty. Its people, particularly its children, suffer from problems with poverty, including malnutrition, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.
Ghana Turtle Conservation and Ecotourism
Contribute to efforts to protect the habitat of nesting turtles in Ghana with Naturally Africa Volunteers. Based on a breathtaking beach on the West Coast, your volunteer work will conserve the environment as well as promote its importance within surrounding fishing communities and to tourists. You’ll stay at Green Turtle Lodge, an established eco-tourism guest house that’s been working on community projects since 2003. Described as an “oasis overlooking a stunning beach,” the guesthouse also features delicious food and friendly staff.
You’ll work at the Ghana Turtle Conservation and Eco-Tourism Project to protect the endangered Olive Ridley, the Leatherback, and the Green Turtle. Locally, the turtles are threatened by fishermen and other people who hunt and kill the turtles for their meat, and who poach eggs from their nests. Your diverse duties will include beach patrols, research, education of the community, training and working alongside guides on eco-tours and interacting with tourists. This project gives you special insight into eco-tourism, including how an eco-guesthouse operates. You’ll learn about utilizing and managing renewable energy sources, and self-composting toilets. On tours, you’ll assist the hiking and canoe guides as they seek hatching turtles, and identify plants in the forests, explaining the importance of the ecosystem to guests.
You’ll be provided with materials and support to learn these skills on the project. If you’re self-motivated and prepared to work hard, you’ll enjoy this rewarding experience. Accommodations in shared African-style beach chalet rooms, as well as three meals per day, and transfers to the airport are included in the fee. Spend your free time relaxing, reading, or playing board games, or challenge other volunteers and tourists to play volleyball or table tennis. Go hiking or canoeing through an organized excursion. Learn more about this exciting and luxurious project.
International Volunteer HQ
International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) focuses on affordable travel experiences that promote global awareness and cultural understanding. Launched in 2007, IVHQ operates in 40 countries and places thousands of volunteers each year with responsible programs that prioritize a community’s needs and the protection of its children. By partnering with organizations based in host countries, IVHQ ensures that volunteers are genuinely needed, the staff is local, and costs are reduced, making programs more affordable. Sustainable tourism is also a priority, congruent with IVHQ’s long-term goals.
IVHQ offers a wide range of volunteer projects in Ghana, based in the Accra region, along West Africa’s Atlantic coast. Volunteers can stay for one week to six months and choose to work in construction and renovation, agriculture, teaching English or sports, childcare, medical fields.
Volunteer with Construction and Renovation in Ghana
If you’re healthy and fit and enjoy being outside, IVHQ’s construction and renovation project might be a great choice for your volunteer trip. Work in small rural communities alongside residents to help improve the infrastructure of their community centers, schools, children’s homes, and toilet facilities. Tasks vary depending upon the job, and may include painting, mixing mortar, bricklaying, plastering, digging, block shaping, carpentry, steel bending, and more. No experience is needed since you’ll be working with members of the IVHQ team. Program fees begin at $270 for one week. Read more here and apply.
Volunteer with Agriculture in Ghana
Join IVHQ in Ghana on a sustainable agricultural project that provides food for childcare programs. This hands-on project involves crop farming and animal farming, so you’ll become familiar with the native food sources of eggplants, capsicums, and palms, and raising pigs, rabbits, goats, and chickens. Work is labor-intensive, so part of your day could be spent clearing land, fertilizing and developing land for cropping, planting and nurturing crops, and teaching farming techniques to others. When you work with animals, your chores range from purchasing and caring for the stock, building fencing, and moving the animals. No experience is necessary, but if you have agricultural training, your skills and knowledge are welcome to help teach new farming methods to staff, and the older children at the home, helping them become more efficient on the farm. Costs for this program start at $270 for one week. Learn more about this helpful project here.
Volunteer with Sports Teaching in Ghana
If you love sports, consider an IVHQ volunteer placement that has you teaching sports to children and young adults to share the benefits of physical education, and increase their skill level in a variety of games. By using physical education as a learning platform, you’ll teach students how to work as a team, develop their self-confidence, and bring out the best of the players. Football (soccer) is the most popular activity in Ghana, but you’re encouraged to introduce new games and sports. To teach your favorite sports, you may need to bring equipment with you, since they may not be available for purchase in Ghana. Open to all volunteers, regardless of your previous teaching experience, this opportunity helps you learn more about the concept of being an educator. You also may be asked to assist in the areas of math, English, science, or social studies while on this project, since sports is generally taught in the afternoon or early evening. Program fees begin at $270 for one week, and you can stay up to six months. Read more and register.
Volunteers in Ghana stay in a shared house with meals included and can keep in touch with family via wifi access at cafes and restaurants in a nearby village. Relax on weekends, or explore other neighborhoods in Ghana. Take a long weekend to Cape Coast, or nearby West African countries, or lend a hand with the children in the community, playing and entertaining them and yourself. IVHQ offers various travel and tour options while you’re in Ghana, including trips to soccer matches, waterfalls, beaches, and animal sanctuaries.
When in West Africa
West Africa is constantly changing, but one constant remains: it is a socially conservative place. When you visit this amazing destination, remember a few guidelines and you’ll have a wonderful trip. Be friendly and patient, and avoid confrontation. Be respectful of its religion. Wear loose clothing, but nothing revealing. Always ask permission when you’re taking photographs, and avoid criticizing the government or the countries that you visit. Above all, be polite and enjoy yourself in this energetic and creative land.
Robin Van Auken · Writer
Robin is a researcher, writer, and a registered professional archaeologist, a skillset she uses every day as a cultural communication specialist with Hands-on Heritage. Her projects connect communities with an emphasis on interpretation and education and conserve cultural and environmental legacies.